. . . to sort simple statistics incorrectly? The answer is, “Just a handful of busy beavers at the Violence Policy Center (VPC).” In April, VPC posted a press release on its website titled “Massachusetts Has Lowest Gun Death Rate in Nation,” the gist of which is that states with lower gun ownership and stronger gun control laws had the lowest rates of gun-related death in 2009, and vice versa. VPC said that the the five states with the lowest firearm-related death rates were Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut (which have relatively less gun ownership) and the five with the highest rates were Louisiana, Alabama, Montana, Wyoming and Mississippi (which have relatively higher gun ownership). The “strong” state-level gun laws VPC had in mind were “assault weapon” bans, purchase permits, and restrictive open and concealed carry laws.
For starters, VPC misleadingly combined firearm-related suicides, homicides and accidents into a “gun death” aggregate, because the risk factors, causes, and solutions to these three types of deaths are not the same. By way of analogy, jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge is not the same thing as having an accident in a swimming pool, or being shoved overboard off the shuffleboard deck of a cruise ship in the middle of the night, even if water is involved in all three.
Secondly, while for better or worse the debate continues over whether this or that gun law could affect gun crime numbers, that’s not so where suicides are concerned. That’s an important factor in this instance, given that suicides account for 60 percent of firearm-related deaths. Studies have shown that gun ownership rates don’t affect overall suicide rates. In Japan, for example, firearms are extremely restricted, and firearm ownership is therefore very uncommon, but the suicide rate is about 1.5 times higher than ours.
And there are examples here at home. As VPC was glad to point out, Hawaii (which has laws that VPC likes) has a relatively low firearm-related suicide rate, and Louisiana and Mississippi (which have laws that VPC doesn’t like) relatively high ones, but Louisiana and Mississippi have lower overall suicide rates than Hawaii. Of course, no reasonable person can believe that suicides can be prevented by an “assault weapon” ban or by prohibiting the carrying of firearms for protection away from home.
Where homicides are concerned, the CDC data used by VPC differed significantly from the figures provided by the FBI in its 2009 crime report. According to the FBI’s data–which is more accurate because it’s based upon police reports–the six states with the lowest murder rates in 2009 were New Hampshire, Iowa, Vermont, Minnesota, Utah and Idaho, all of which are Right-to-Carry states, and none of which bans “assault weapons.” Minnesota requires a purchase permit or 7-day waiting period to buy an “assault weapon,” but Maryland, which also has a waiting period on “assault weapons,” had the third highest murder rate in 2009 and the second highest rate in 2010.
Hawaii, which has an “assault pistol” ban and no RTC law, and which made VPC’s top five list, came in seventh in 2009. But North Dakota, Maine, Wyoming, Nebraska and Oregon–all with RTC laws and none with an “assault weapon” ban–had lower rates than the next state on VPC’s list, Massachusetts, which restricts “assault weapons” and has no RTC law.
Wisconsin and Washington–both with RTC laws and neither with an “assault weapon” ban–had lower rates than the next state on VPC’s list, Connecticut, which has an RTC law, but which bans “assault weapons.”
Alaska, Colorado and Montana–all with RTC laws and no “assault weapon” bans–had lower rates than the next state on VPC’s list, New Jersey, which has no RTC law and which bans “assault firearms.”
And South Dakota–which has an RTC law and no “assault weapon” ban–had a lower rate than the last of VPC’s top five states, New York, which has no RTC law and which bans “assault weapons.” And for those who are counting, New York’s rate was more than double those of nine states that have RTC laws and no “assault weapon” bans.
Firearm accident deaths are so relatively uncommon that the CDC did not provide estimates for their numbers in 29 states, and in another 13 states the CDC said the numbers were too small to allow for reliable estimates. Firearms are involved in only one-third of one percent of accidental deaths, compared to much larger percentages for automobile accidents, falls, drowning, suffocation, and fires. Suffice it to say that states that had the highest rates of firearm accident deaths were among those that had the highest accidental death rates in general.
Finally, VPC used 2002 gun ownership figures, which probably undercounts gun ownership nationally, because in 2002 people were less likely to tell pollsters that they own guns than they are today. Gallup discussed this in its 2011 gun ownership survey. After noting that reported gun ownership was higher than any time since 1993, Gallup said “A clear societal change took place regarding gun ownership in the early 1990s, when the percentage of Americans saying there was a gun in their home or on their property dropped from the low to mid-50s into the low to mid-40s and remained at that level for the next 15 years. Whether this reflected a true decline in gun ownership or a cultural shift in Americans’ willingness to say they had guns is unclear. However, the new data suggest that attitudes may again be changing.”
The states in which people are arguably least likely to report gun ownership are those that restrict firearm ownership most severely, including several of the states that made the VPC’s list.
There was one other thing that VPC neglected to mention. Since 1993, when the firearm-related death rate exceeded 15 per 100,000 population, it has dropped to just over 10 per 100,000–another illustration that more gun ownership has not led to more firearm-related deaths.